How the Disney’s ‘Frozen’ Was Almost a Massive Failure
The Disney megahit was almost a disaster, until a series of creative brainstorms saved the day.
Photograph by Claire Benoist
In 2014, the Disney movie Frozen became the top-grossing animated movie of all time. It won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film, and “Let It Go” won the Oscar for Best Original Song. The film contained all the elements of a traditional Disney plot—princesses and ball gowns, a handsome prince, a wisecracking sidekick, and a stream of upbeat songs. But throughout, these elements had been disturbed, just enough, to let something new and different emerge. We assume such original storytelling comes from the innate genius of its creators, but here’s how Frozen really got its fairy-tale ending.
It’s 2012, and the screening-room audience is all Disney employees. As the lights dim, two sisters appear on the screen against an icy landscape. Anna, the younger character, quickly establishes herself as bossy and uptight, obsessed with her upcoming wedding and her coronation as queen.
Elsa, her older sister, is jealous, evil—and cursed. Everything she touches turns to ice. She was passed over for the throne because of this power, and now she wants revenge. She plots with a snarky snowman named Olaf to claim the crown for herself, and she floods the village with vicious snow creatures. The monsters, however, are soon out of her control. They begin to threaten everyone, including Elsa herself. The only way to survive, Anna and Elsa realize, is for them to join forces. Through cooperation, they defeat the creatures, and everyone lives happily ever after.
The name of the movie is Frozen, and it is scheduled to be released in just 18 months.
Often, when a movie screening ends at Disney, people cheer or shout. This time, there are no cheers. As everyone files out, it is very, very quiet.
After the screening, the director, Chris Buck, and about a dozen other filmmakers gather to discuss what they saw. This is a meeting of the studio’s “story trust,” a group responsible for providing feedback on films as they go through production.
Disney’s chief creative officer, John Lasseter, begins. “You’ve got some great scenes here,” he says. “The dialogue between the sisters was witty. The snow monsters were terrifying. The film had a good, fast pace.” And then he begins listing the film’s flaws. After detailing a dozen problems, he says, “There’s no character to root for. Anna’s too uptight, and Elsa’s too evil.”
Others chime in: There were logical holes in the plot. There were too many characters. The plot twists were foreshadowed way too much.
Buck isn’t surprised. His team had sensed the movie wasn’t working for months. The film’s screenwriter had restructured the script repeatedly. The songwriters were exhausted from writing and scrapping song after song.
“There’s a lot of really good material here,” Lasseter tells Buck, “but you need to find the movie’s core.” Lasseter rises from his seat. “It would be great if it happened soon.”
From the beginning, the Frozen team members had known they couldn’t simply retell an old fairy tale. “It couldn’t just be that at the end, a prince gives someone a kiss, and that’s the definition of true love,” Buck told me. They wanted the film to say something bigger, about how girls don’t need to be saved by Prince Charming, about how sisters can save themselves. They wanted to turn the standard princess formula on its head.
“It was a really big ambition,” said Jennifer Lee, who joined the team as a writer after working on Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph. “And it was particularly hard because every movie needs tension, but if the tension in Frozen is between the sisters, how do you make them both likable? The movie needed to connect emotionally.”
[pullquote] We can always find the right story when we start asking ourselves what feels true. [/pullquote]
“Creativity is just problem solving,” Disney Animation Studios (and former Pixar) leader Ed Catmull has said, and so each morning, Buck and his team of writers and artists assembled with their coffee cups and to-do lists. Songwriters Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez would videoconference in from their home in Brooklyn.
“Instead of focusing on the things that aren’t working,” Peter Del Vecho, the producer, said the morning after, “I want you to envision your biggest hopes. If we could do anything, what would you want to see on the screen?”
People started describing what excited them about Frozen. Some were drawn in because it offered a chance to upend the way girls are portrayed in films. Others were inspired by the idea of two sisters coming together.
“My sister and I fought a lot as kids,” Lee told the room. Then, when Lee was in her 20s, her boyfriend drowned in a boating accident. Her sister was there at a time of need. “There’s this moment when you start to see your sibling as a person instead of a reflection of yourself,” Lee said. “I think that’s what has been bothering me the most about this script. Siblings don’t grow apart because one is good and one is bad. They grow apart because they’re both messes, and then they come together when they realize they need each other.”
Over the next month, the Frozen team focused on the relationship between the movie’s sisters. In particular, the filmmakers drew on their own experiences. “We can always find the right story when we start asking ourselves what feels true,” Del Vecho told me. “The thing that holds us back is when we forget to use our lives, what’s inside our heads, as raw material.”
A few months later, songwriters Lopez and Anderson-Lopez were walking through a park in Brooklyn, and Anderson-Lopez asked, “What would it feel like if you were Elsa? What if you tried to be good your entire life and it didn’t matter, because people constantly judged you?”
Anderson-Lopez knew this feeling as a busy working parent. She felt other parents’ looks when she let their daughters eat ice cream instead of healthy snacks. She’d felt glances when she and Lopez let their girls watch an iPad in a restaurant because they wanted a moment of peace. It wasn’t her fault that she wanted to be a good mom, wife, and songwriter and that things like home-packed snacks and sparkling dinner conversation sometimes fell by the wayside.
She didn’t think she needed to apologize for not being perfect. And she didn’t think Elsa should have to apologize either. “Elsa is being punished for being herself,” Anderson- Lopez said to Lopez. “The only way out is for her to stop caring, to let it all go.”
They riffed, singing snippets of lyrics. What if they wrote a song that started with a fairy-tale opening? Then Elsa could talk about the pressures of being a good girl.
“She could change into a woman,” Anderson-Lopez said. “That’s what growing up is, letting go of the things you shouldn’t have to care about.”
She began singing, trying out lyrics for Elsa to convey that she doesn’t care what anyone thinks anymore.
Let it go, let it go.
That perfect girl is gone.
“I think you just figured out the chorus,” said Lopez.
Back in their apartment, they recorded a rough draft. The next day, the Frozen team put “Let It Go” on the sound system at the Disney headquarters.
“Finally, it felt like we had broken through,” Lee said to me later. “We could see the movie. We needed someone to show us ourselves in the characters, to make them familiar. ‘Let It Go’ made Elsa feel like one of us.”
Seven months later, the Frozen team had the first two thirds of the film figured out. They knew how to make Anna and Elsa likable while driving them apart to create the tension the film needed. They had transformed Olaf into a lovable sidekick. Everything was falling into place.
Except they had no idea how to end the film. The group was so comfortable with its vision of the sisters that it had lost the ability to see other paths.
[pullquote] That’s what we need to do with the ending—show that love is stronger than fear. [/pullquote]
“We had to shake things up,” said Catmull, the studio’s president. “So we made Jenn Lee a second director.”
Lee was already the film’s writer. Naming her as a second director, with equal authority to Buck, didn’t add any new voices to meetings. But sometimes the best way to spark creativity is by disturbing things just enough to let some light through.
“The change was subtle but at the same time very real,” Lee told me. “I felt like I had to listen even more closely to what everyone was saying because that was my job now.” She understood that people were asking for clarity, for every choice to reflect a core idea.
A few months after her promotion, Lee received an e-mail from Anderson-Lopez. “Yesterday I went to therapy,” the songwriter wrote. “I was discussing dynamics and politics and power and who do you listen to and how do [you] start,” she typed. “Then my therapist asked me, ‘Why do you do [what you do]?’
“It all really comes down to the fact that I have things I need to share about the human experience,” Anderson-Lopez wrote to Lee. “I want to take what I have learned or felt and help people by sharing it. What is it about Frozen that you, Bobby, and I have to say? For me, it has something to do with not getting frozen in roles that are dictated by circumstances beyond our control.”
Lee herself was an example of this. She had come to Disney as a new film-school graduate with a young daughter, a fresh divorce, and student loans, and now she was the first female director in Disney’s history. Anderson-Lopez and Lopez had fought to build the careers they wanted, even when everyone said it was ridiculous that they could support themselves by writing songs. Now here they were, with the lives they’d wished for. For Frozen’s ending, Anderson-Lopez said, they had to find a way to share that sense of possibility with the audience.
“What is it for you?” Anderson- Lopez typed.
Lee replied 23 minutes later. All the members of the team had their own ideas. However, Frozen could have only one ending. Someone had to make a choice. And the right decision, Lee wrote, was that “fear destroys us; love heals us. Anna’s journey should be about learning what love is; it’s that simple. Love is a greater force than fear. Go with love.”
Later that month, Lee sat down with John Lasseter. “We need clarity,” she told him. “The core of this movie isn’t about good and evil, because that doesn’t happen in real life. And this movie isn’t about love versus hate. That’s not why sisters grow apart.
“This is a movie about love and fear. Anna is all about love, and Elsa is all about fear. Anna has been abandoned, so she throws herself into the arms of Prince Charming because she doesn’t know the difference between real love and infatuation. She has to learn that love is about sacrifice. And Elsa has to learn that you can’t be afraid of who you are; you can’t run away from your own powers. You have to embrace your strengths. That’s what we need to do with the ending—show that love is stronger than fear.”
“Say it again,” Lasseter told her.
Lee described her theory of love versus fear again, explaining how Olaf, the snowman, embodies innocent love, while Prince Hans demonstrates that love without sacrifice isn’t really love at all; it’s narcissism.
“Say it again,” Lasseter said.
Lee said it again.
“Now go tell the team,” said Lasseter.
In November 2013, Frozen was released. The prince wasn’t charming; in fact, he was the villain. The princesses weren’t helpless; instead, they saved each other. Finally, true love came from siblings learning to embrace their own strengths.
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